By Kimball, Roger
New Criterion , Vol. 20, No. 3
A great philosophy is not that which passes final judgments, which takes a seat in final truth. It is that which introduces uneasiness, which opens the door to commotion.
--Charles Peguy, "Note on M. Bergson"
Truth's pedagogue, braving an entrenched class of fools and scoundrels, children of the world, his eyes caged and hostile behind glass--still Peguy said that Hope is a little child.
--Geoffrey Hill, The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy
In the introduction to his Essays on European Literature (1950), E. R. Curtius remarked on his good fortune in having been a contemporary and an interpreter of "men like Gide, Claudel, Peguy, Proust, Valery, Hofmannsthal, Ortega, Joyce, Eliot." Greatness calls forth greatness, so it is easy to understand Curtius's gratitude. But what about his list? Joyce and Eliot are self-explanatory. Likewise Proust and Valery, Ortega and Hofmannsthal. Gide and Claudel are at least plausible, even if their reputations have declined in the years since Curtius wrote. But Peguy? How did that unfamiliar name find its way onto the distinguished critic's "A-list"?
In the English-speaking world, the French poet and intermittently Catholic polemicist Charles Peguy is barely even a name today. Until recently, I knew him only as the author of the penetrating observation (found in a 1905 essay called "Notre Patrie") that "It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of not looking sufficiently progressive." Having gained in pertinence for nearly a century, that remark by itself is worth a modest sort of literary, immortality.
From about 1910 until around the time Curtius composed his tabulary homage, Peguy was regularly invoked as a modern master--a peculiar master, to be sure, but a master nonetheless. Writing in The New Statesman in 1916, two years after Peguy's death in action at the beginning of World War I, T. S. Eliot commended him as "one of the most illustrious of the dead who have fallen in this war," "a national, a symbolic figure, the incarnation of the rejuvenated French spirit." The philosopher Henri Bergson, whom Peguy knew and whose work he wrote about, said that "he knew my most secret thought, such as I have never expressed it, such as I would have wished to express it." Similar encomia abound.
In our own day, enthusiasts for Peguy's work are much rarer. One of them is the French philosopher Pierre Manent. In "Charles Peguy: Between Political Faith and Faith" (1984), Manent extolled Peguy as "one of the most penetrating critics of the historical and sociological points of view which dominate modern consciousness." High praise. Manent acknowledges the "violently personal" character of Peguy's work, his habit of lacing considered arguments with ad hominem attacks, of ending lyrical expostulations with "an insult." But Manent discerned a "luminous mind, eager to understand and to think" behind the self-obsession and often bitter polemics. Peguy, Manent argues, continues to be "of capital importance," above all because of his insights into the distinctive hubris of modernity: the curious modern tendency to substitute faith in technique for the cultivation of wisdom, the belief that a perfect administration of life could somehow relieve the burden, the unpredictable adventure, of living.
Another of Peguy's recent admirers is the British poet Geoffrey Hill. Hill not only devoted a long poem to Peguy in 1984--The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy evokes the title of Peguy's most famous poem Le Mystere de la Charite de Jeanne d'Arc (1909)--but also wrote an enthusiastic appreciation of Peguy, whom he clearly regards as a kindred spirit. Peguy was, Hill admitted, a man of violent emotions ("violent" and "passionate" are words that inevitably turn up whenever Peguy is on the menu), but also "a man of the most exact and exacting probity," "one of the great souls, one of the great prophetic intelligences, of our century. …